January 17, 2010

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Tarot Cafe Volume 6

Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park
Tokyopop

One of the dangers of a continuing series is that it can wander off the original purpose, or hook, that drew a reader to it in the first place. That leaves the reader feeling like they are looking at a different book, one that holds far less interest to them than the concept that hooked them in the first place.

That's where I'm at by the 6th volume of Tarot Cafe. The pretense of a fortune-telling shop is still there (we see the Cafe in a few places), but there are no strangers waiting to have their story told by Pamela. The entire volume is taken up by her tangled, confusing past, where Pamela crossed paths with a demon who still haunts her to this day. She's close to unlocking the key to removing her immortality, but in the process learns that so much of what she's counted on is a lie, orchestrated by Belial. When you're dealing with a demon, is there any way out?

The story itself is not bad, but when we saw it in pieces over the course of the first five volumes, I found it to be too confusing for my taste. I think Park's goal was to keep things vague until this set of stories, which contains as close to a big reveal as we've gotten so far. However, in the process, Park kept me at arm's length in relation to the plot, so now that I'm supposed to be paying attention, it left me cold. Given a choice between focusing on Pamela's overly complex history and enjoying the stories of her patrons, I chose the latter.

From what I can gather, Pamela has been clueless all this time as everyone around her manipulated her from behind the scenes. As a mystic, I find that hard to believe. She'd have to have a mental block the size of Mount Rushmore to prevent her from seeing through some of the lies presented here. In the effort to keep everything under a veil of mystery, Park has not given Pamela the legs she needs to stand on her own as a focal point. Even now, Pamela looks so passive it's a wonder she's able to escape by the end of the volume to regroup for what I presume will be another confrontation with Belial in Volume 7.

Tarot Cafe was, for me, about reading the fortunes of interesting characters, with Pamela as the framing device. I never thought she was all that strong as a character, and now that she's the focus, I think that was the correct assumption. I'd like to see Pamela actively participating in her story, if we have to feature her so heavily. I just don't see why Park opted to go down that road in the first place, when the premise was fine as it stood.

All that being said, the artwork is still gorgeous. Park's linework is as detailed as just about anyone I've read, particularly in a page featuring humans with their flesh flayed from their bones. It should have been grotesque but Park finds a way to make it look like a work of art. The drawings of dragons are simply stunning. Even if the story is not the best, Tarot Cafe is worth picking up because of the artwork, and I don't often say that, as story is my primary reason for reading any comic.

Overall, I'm sad that Tarot Cafe has strayed so far from the path set out in the first few volumes. However, I'm this far in, so I plan to finish it, especially since Park's artwork is so pretty to look at. At this point, however, I wouldn't recommend the series because of the shift in focus. The Tarot Cafe has changed its menu, and this customer wasn't happy with the new chef. However, the pictures on the menu really do look good!